In a lawsuit filed Monday, Montana Citizens for Right to Work is asking a U.S. District Court judge to rule that the state’s Clean Campaign Act is unconstitutional and to prevent the Commissioner of Political Practices from prosecuting the political committee over its alleged violations of the law.
The group argues in the suit that it was unconstitutionally burdened by the state’s Clean Campaign Act when it failed to provide copies to the subjects of campaign mailers it sent out Oct. 28, 2020.
The Clean Campaign Act requires political committees to provide a candidate with a copy of any mailer published within 10 days of an election day if that mailer refers to the candidate, the lawsuit read. Because the law only applies to mailers that criticize candidates and not endorse candidates, Citizens for Right to Work say it is unconstitutional, and COPP should not punish it for failing to notify the subjects of 2020 mailers.
“This bizarre law violates both the First Amendment and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution,” the suit says.
The Bozeman-based political committee is the only plaintiff in the case and is asking the court to declare the Montana Clean Campaign Act unconstitutional and is requesting an injunction prohibiting COPP from prosecuting the political committee over its violation of the campaign act. Jeffrey Mangan, in his capacity as the Commissioner of Political Practices, is the only listed defendant in the lawsuit. The COPP said it was aware of the lawsuit, but had not seen a copy of it and would not comment.
“Because the Act burdens only campaign speech that does not endorse a candidate, the Act is a content-based statute and, furthermore, discriminates against protected speech based upon viewpoint,” the suit says. “The State of Montana has no compelling interest, or even an important interest, in discriminating against speech about candidates based upon viewpoint.”
On October 28, 2020, Montana Citizens for Right to work mailed out around 16,00 campaign mailers to voters in 20 different legislative districts. The mailers contained a “2020 Candidate Survey” with candidate opinions on right-to-work laws, which make it harder for labor unions to collect dues from members.
The plaintiffs say they filed the appropriate campaign finance report with COPP but did not provide copies of the mailers to candidates referenced in the mailers, according to the lawsuit.
As a result, Trent Bolger, then senior advisor to the Montana Democratic Party, filed a complaint with COPP alleging the political committee violated the “fair notice” clause required by the Clean Campaign Act. On March 10, 2021, the commissioner’s office ruled that there was sufficient evidence to show the committee violated the act and said a civil fine is justified.
The lawsuit says the commissioner sent a letter to Montana Citizens for Right to Work demanding $8,000 from the committee or else “[t]he Commissioner could pursue action in district court for a minimum of $20,000.00 for violations of Montana’s Campaign Finance and Practices laws.”
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